Burlesque performer Trixie Minx is generally the least clothed person at her public events. Not so Saturday afternoon as she rode aboard a pedicab as grand marshal of the New Orleans World Naked Bike Ride.
Her sheer, see-through bikini top and pasties, accented by a neon-green sequined bicycle helmet, qualified as positively puritanical compared to many of those in the procession behind her.
An estimated 300 riders in all shapes and sizes, accompanied by a police escort, set off from Piety and Royal streets at 5 p.m., bound for the French Quarter.
Their dress code? “As bare as you dare.”
For some, that meant body paint and strategically placed bits of fabric. For others, it meant nothing more than a helmet, shoes and a smile.
Now in its 10th year, the New Orleans World Naked Bike Ride is loosely affiliated with dozens of similar events around the world. The stated intent is to protest the world’s dependence on oil and/or to promote bicycle safety.
The New Orleans version looks to the worldwide event for philosophical guidance but operates independently. Organizers are volunteers. The ride is open to anyone willing to abide by guidelines spelled out on a Facebook page.
“We don’t really have any control over the riders,” Shane Steinkamp, one of the ride’s volunteer organizers, said beforehand. “Everybody is there as individual artists and protesters. We’re like a rolling art form.”
An art form with a mission: to cut down on the number of bicyclists killed by drivers on the streets of New Orleans.
“The exposure of our bare selves is part protest and artistic expression,” Steinkamp said. “It’s a very direct way to communicate that cyclists are vulnerable, flesh-and-blood people, as compared to the machines that kill us.”
When a bicyclist is struck by a vehicle, Steinkamp noted, the driver almost always says, “I didn’t see him.” The Naked Bike Ride, then, is “a fun way for bicycle riders to get attention and be noticed. If you’re riding a bike naked, you’ll get seen.”
Indeed, one rider Saturday sported a sign with a drawing of a bicyclist and the message, “Have patience. Wait until there’s room, then pass slowly.” Another had painted “Don’t Tread on Me” and a tire track on his back.
But others clearly enjoyed just being part of an eye-popping spectacle.
The Big Easy’s risqué reputation aside, the ride’s official Facebook page cautions that “New Orleans is NOT a nude friendly city.”
“You might get away with it on Mardi Gras,” Steinkamp said, “but for the most part, you can’t walk down the street in New Orleans nude.”
Or ride a bicycle. But some discretion is allowed for forms of protest and artistic expression, both of which the Naked Bike Ride claims to be.
“Is it strictly legal? We’ve never taken it to court,” Steinkamp said.
“Nothing in the ride is intended to be indecent. None of us has prurient intent to shock or sexualize onlookers. We’re using our bodies as a free speech element to show we’re vulnerable in traffic.
“We consider that (message) carefully against the public’s right to remain unoffended. But we also have a right as protesters and artists to have that expression.”
On the street, bare aspirations must strike a balance with the tolerance level of police. Some fully nude men reportedly received warnings last year.
“They’ve asked us to watch the nudity, because that reflects on them if somebody is shocked and complains,” Steinkamp said. “We try to tone it down as far as we can.
“This has a protest component, but we’re not out there to challenge or get arrested. We’re there to get our message across. If one of us gets arrested, that’s not a good message.”
Some naked bike rides in other cities are guerrilla events. But the New Orleans organizers secure the required parade permits and police escorts.
“It is a parade,” Steinkamp said. “We need to treat it like any other parade and follow parade rules.”
Police cars led and trailed the procession, keeping the group together and setting a brisk pace through Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter. Five officers on motorcycles blocked traffic on cross streets.
Perhaps looking to hedge his bets, one naked man had painted a pro-police slogan — “Blue Lives Matter” — on his back.
But a laissez-faire attitude prevailed as the good times rolled. A dismounted motorcycle cop stood calmly smoking a cigar as a naked man in a horned Viking helmet rode by bearing the message, “Horny 4 Bike Safety.”
Dozens of men opted to go completely au naturel. Women, by and large, were somewhat more discreet. They rode all manner of bicycle, including at least a couple of the city’s bike-sharing Blue Bikes.
Bare bicycling is not without its hazards. In the event of a spill, exposed skin skids across pavement in a most unpleasant manner.
“Fortunately, our ride is not a race,” Steinkamp said. “We take it easy. If you wipe out naked, that could ruin your weekend.”
Chafing is another hazard, sometimes mitigated by a towel wrapped around the bicycle seat. Steinkamp uses a split seat, “which creates a nice air flow and is quite comfortable.”
Groping by bystanders is a bigger problem, especially for female riders. A fully clothed security team accompanied the riders. And the route no longer includes Bourbon Street, where drunken tourists tend to congregate.
The ride “is not for tourists who come to New Orleans and think anything goes,” Steinkamp said. “No touch-y. Only look-y.”
Predictably, crowds were bigger along Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Countless cellphones recorded the procession. Cheers, whoops and words of encouragement rang out.
For some tourists, the World Naked Bike Ride confirmed all their suspicions about New Orleans, and then some.
Outside Violet’s, a women’s clothing boutique in the 800 block of Chartres Street near Jackson Square, a 20-year-old flight school student from Oklahoma named Gage tried to comprehend the spectacle.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “I’m kind of speechless. It’s definitely … interesting. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
His 13-year-old cousin, Madison, said, “I’m pretty sure I’m permanently traumatized.”
As the riders disappeared down Chartres headed back to the Marigny, the bells of St. Louis Cathedral tolled as if on cue.
Madison eased her nerves with newly purchased cotton candy, as the French Quarter eased into Saturday night.
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